Genius is a most eloquent account of the human cost of vast creativity in one person. Often, few people can appreciate it when they encounter it, and it always seems to be a curse for those who try to live with a genius. The black and white film begins appropriately with dense foreboding—It’s a dark, rainy day, with a man standing without an umbrella, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and gazing up at a brick building and its sign, Charles Scribner’s Sons. The camera focuses again and again on the man’s shoes stamping out his cigarette butts while pedestrians hurry by under the protection of their umbrellas, completely oblivious to him. Behind the one light visible in the building sits Max Perkins (Firth) tirelessly editing manuscripts written by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and now as well, Wolfe’s manuscript, O Lost (subsequently changed to Look Homeward, Angel), a fictionalized account of his childhood.
Presently, Thomas Wolfe (Law) appears at Perkins’ door, and we can tell it took a lot of nerve for him to approach. He opens with the statement about not usually liking to get bad news face to face, so he seldom asks in person. But now he inquires nervously, “Have you read my manuscript?” certain that it will be rejected as it has already been turned down by numerous publishers. When Tom is given an encouraging answer, he spews out his gratefulness effusively, and swears he is willing to honor the editor’s precondition to work tirelessly to make it publishable. Little does either of them realize the amount of effort it will take.
It turns out that the two men will be completely in sync in their commitment to the project (willing to sacrifice time and family), a developing father-son relationship filling the thwarted needs of both, and their views of literature. This is despite the sharp contrast in their personalities. Max is often eloquently silent to Tom’s verbosity. Perkins is 1920’s conventional, proper, faithful, and disciplined. Wolfe, in his own words, never knows when to stop, is always pushing against boundaries, and is wide open to all the experiences in life he can grasp. All this is captured perfectly by two versions of the 19th Century song, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton”, which Perkins has said is his favorite. He and Tom are in a jazz bar, and Tom gets the band to play it first in the old version to satisfy Max and then again in his own preferred jazzed-up version of it.
The film Genius (screenwriter John Logan) is based on the book by A. Scott Berg entitled Max Perkins: Editor of Genius about the fascinating relationship between the aspiring novelist Thomas Wolfe and his first editor, Max Perkins. The movie is a tour de force in its direction (Michael Grandage), its music (Adam Cork), cinematography (Ben Davis), and acting. Suppressing his British persona, Colin Firth gets across the dignified New England stoicism and Puritan values of Max Perkins. Jude Law’s portrayal of the outrageous, self-entitled writer is sometimes obnoxious, but always entertaining, even in his darkest musings. Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, and Laura Linney round out the stellar cast. Although someone might object to the dominance of British/Australian filmmakers, I think they are successful in their efforts to capture the American spirit of the times.
A most interesting sidelight is how Genius makes references to how women were regarded in the 1920’s. Max casts a dim view of his wife’s playwriting and acting aspirations. He and Tom talk over her when she tries to turn the conversation to her own work; they’re not interested and don’t consider it important. Tom has no appreciation for his lover’s passion as a Theater set and costume designer, even after she has been continuously supportive of and made huge sacrifices for his work. This will go largely unnoticed, even by today’s generation.
A tour de force in its account of the life of a genius and of those who are close to him.